Taken only at face value, it may seem rational when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe argues that that his country deserves a Free Trade Agreement as a reward for the decline in murders of trade unionists.

The reduction is dramatic. And the Bush and Uribe administrations, which want the FTA badly, are the first to tell you so. In 2001, the year before Uribe took office, 197 trade unionists were murdered. Last year, the number was 40.

But President Uribe made a disquieting comment during a meeting last week with an AFL-CIO delegation to Colombia that included Dan Kovalik, Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers. Uribe’s off-handed remark revealed that the murders will continue during his reign because he tacitly supports them, and for that reason, the FTA must remain comatose.

Bush and Uribe have been pressing hard in recent weeks for Congress to approve the FTA, and U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez staged a show for it on Valentine’s Day in front of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Using Colombian flowers to rally supporters, Gutierrez regaled the crowd with claims that the export of Colombian flowers to the U.S. is an example of win-win benefits that the FTA would enhance.

What he did not mention, of course, is that a goodly number of roses had remained in Colombia to cover the graves of the five trade unionists already gunned down this year, nearly one a week. He failed to say that more than 400 trade unionist have been killed during the Uribe administration, and fewer than 3 percent of their murderers tried and convicted.

What he didn’t bring up is that the murder numbers have declined before and risen again. In 1996, there were 275 killed, a number that slowly dropped over the next three years to 80 in 1999. Then, it was up again to 197 in 2001.

It’s true, the number of dead is down. For 2007. We don’t know what the future will bring.

And still, Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists by far.  Even at 40 dead, more trade unionists were killed in Colombia than in all other countries of the world combined last year.

Gutierrez is chauffeuring U.S. Congressmen down to Bogotá to try to persuade them that all’s well enough for them to vote yea on the FTA. He claims that when Colombia gets its murders of unionists down to only 40 a year, well, then, surely, it should be rewarded with an FTA.

Now that might sound sensible in a world where human lives aren’t worth much and commerce is everything. But that is not the world trade unionists live in. They’re the people who actually pick the flowers. For low wages. And when they try to unionize, in Colombia, they’re accused of being guerrillas.
And they’re murdered for that.

In Colombia, there are the leftist guerrillas, better known as the FARC and ELN, which are insurgent groups, supposedly trying to overthrow the government. Providing protection against the guerrillas are paramilitary groups. They work for big multi-national corporations, like Drummond mining, and, at one time, Chiquita Banana. Official political positions aside, both groups support themselves financially by growing cocoa to sell as cocaine in the U.S. Both sets of groups are considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

In Colombia, if a unionist is accused of being a guerrilla, he’s being fingered as a member of a violent subversive group that’s trying to overthrow the government: a terrorist. For the paramilitaries, it’s a license to kill. Someone says a union activist is a guerrilla, then the paramilitaries might threaten or torture or murder him. And there’s no prosecution. That is just the way it has worked for decades in Colombia.

That is what the AFL-CIO delegation went to Colombia to investigate and to discuss with Uribe. The delegates wanted to ask him to protect union activists and to prosecute murderers.

But then Uribe said something frightening.

The AFL-CIO delegation, including Kovalik, Larry Cohen, president of the Communication Workers of American and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President-Emerita Linda Chavez-Thompson met with trade union officials and then with Uribe in his office.

Kovalik told Uribe, based on his conversations with unionists and community leaders, that he felt that there remained an anti-union culture Colombia.

Kovalik, who has been to Colombia numerous times, used as an example of this the interaction he’d had with a colonel in the Colombian Army’s 18th Brigade in 2004 after this group had killed three trade unionists  near Saravena.

The colonel said he knew he was required as an army officer to protect trade unionists, but he felt that a lot of them were, in fact, guerrillas, and, of course, the country was at war with the guerrillas.

This murder was notorious because the army officers planted guns on the dead bodies of the victims. These army officers were tried, convicted and imprisoned for the murders, which is significant in a country that virtually never prosecutes anyone for murdering trade unionists.

Uribe responded to Kovalik by telling him that he believes many trade unionists have good hearts and that he meets with unionists every month.

But, like the colonel, Uribe followed that up by stating a belief that is dangerous for unionists. Uribe said it was his experience as a student -- which would have been some 30 years earlier -- that a tactic of the guerrillas was to infiltrate the union movement, the student movement and the press.

Then, he told Kovalik, by the way, those three guys killed in Saravena, were members of the guerrilla group ELN.

Colombia’s own attorney general had said that was not true, and international human rights groups agree.

But Uribe went on to tell Kovalik that he’d gone to the community and people there had assured him that the three were guerrillas.

Based on hearsay, without any proof, and in direct contradiction of his own attorney general’s case, the president has decided that these three unionists were terrorists.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time Uribe has endangered unionists by stigmatizing them guerrillas.

Discussing two trade unionists killed last year, he told Colombia’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo, it was because one of the men was a “terrorist,